“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Hamlet
The most striking thing to me about yesterday’s raft of information and decisions from the Bank of England was the willingness to act on the basis of forecasts of significant near term economic weakness based on, let’s face it, remarkably little solid evidence. This has continued the trend of the Bank supporting the view that the Brexit vote is a disaster and will lead to a major economic slowdown, a view that is becoming self-perpetuating.
Now, of course, the Bank of England has to try to act on the basis of forecasts, and if it merely responds to coincident or lagging indicators of the economy it risks being seen to be “behind the curve” or setting policy “looking in the rear view mirror”. But we are in a unique situation here. No-one has ever left the EU before. We don’t know what the UK trade arrangements will be in the future, and these will in any case not be in place for more than another two years. The Bank takes the view that the ultimate result will be some reduction in UK supply capacity in 2019 and beyond, though it admits the extent of this effect is very uncertain. Fair enough. But the measures announced yesterday were not really intended to deal with this, but with the short-term demand reaction. It is here that I think the Bank is on very shaky ground, for several reasons.
First of all, we should need no reminding that the Bank’s record of forecasting under Carney has been woeful, from the initial unexpectedly sharp decline in unemployment which quickly left his conditions for raising rates looking ridiculous, to the more recent indications that rates were likely to go up rather than down. Carney’s reputation as an “unreliable boyfriend” is therefore to some extent justified, though I would argue his fault is not so much a lack of foresight – as all forecasters know, being wrong is the norm – as suggesting he has more confidence in his foresight and consequently his understanding of the correct policy path than he had any real right to. Of course, there are uncertainty bands around all the Bank of England Inflation report forecasts, but Carney has always tried to provide an impression of greater commitment to a view than these suggest, in contrast to his predecessor Lord King, who increasingly emphasised that neither he nor anyone else knew the answers to many of the questions he was asked.
So it would be foolish to take the Bank’s forecasts as gospel, even in normal times, and one of the main points made by the Bank yesterday was that these were more uncertain times than usual and that there had been “sharp rises in indicators of uncertainty in recent months”. Once again, fair enough, But the Bank goes on to conclude that such uncertainty could lead to a reduction in spending, particularly major spending commitments. Well, maybe, but maybe not. The impact of uncertainty is very – er – uncertain. Uncertainty squared, if you like.
Of course, as former MPC member Charles Goodhart has noted, we always think the situation is uncertain, and this is not an excuse for doing nothing. That only leads to vacillation. The Bank has taken a view that further monetary accommodation is needed because the risks are on the downside. Again, as Goodhart has pointed out, the impact of these measures is unlikely to be very large, as monetary policy has close to run out of bullets, but they are unlikely to do any harm, at least directly.
So my problem is not with the measures per se, or even the broad slant of the analysis, but with the presentation. The Bank accepts that there is a lot of uncertainty, and worries that this will lead to less spending. But the reaction of people and businesses is not set in stone. It is about confidence and sentiment. The Bank’s policy reaction is not so much about the actual shape of the trade relations in years to come, but the reaction of firms and consumers to worrying about it. The best way of dealing with this is not to say – “yes, things are pretty awful, so here are some measures that might be a bit of a help if things turn out to be as bad as we fear”. It is to take as positive approach as possible, say that we don’t really know what is going to happen down the road, but there is no real need to change our behaviour now as the picture in two or three years time is really entirely unknown. Brexit may not even be the most important thing that happens over that period. For instance, if the Eurozone’s nascent recovery continues, helped by some expansionary fiscal policy, it may swamp any negative Brexit impact (if there is any).
Now, there is of course some need for transparency, and Carney has taken the view that it was the responsibility of the Bank to put out its best guess of the impact of Brexit ahead of the vote. But I feel this was the first error that has been compounded by subsequent acts. You don’t have to believe, like some on the Treasury Select Committee, that there was a sinister political motive behind the Bank’s negative forecasts ahead of the vote, to think that a more humble view would have been far less damaging. If the Bank had merely said that the impact was uncertain and it would react when there was some greater clarity, the idea that a big slowdown was inevitable would not have become so ingrained, and firms and consumers would be less inclined to believe they should put off big spending projects. The latest Bank action might still have been the same, but could have been presented as an insurance policy rather than a reaction to an inevitable sharp downturn. Now we are in danger of talking ourselves into a downturn, and producing a fiscal expansion we can ill afford to offset it.
Perhaps Carney should have spent more time reading Shakespeare rather than learning about DSGE models. Then he would know that “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”.